Most landscape painters who work en plein air relish the thought of discovering a new location and the potential it may offer for artistic inspiration. This allure of the yet undiscovered subject has led many a painter to spend the better part of a day traipsing over just one more hill to see what lies on the other side. When left unchecked, this pursuit, as well intentioned as it may be, can actually impede artistic growth.
Most of us, when first learning how to paint, believe that all that is required to be a successful realist painter is the ability to draw accurately and to master the media technically. While these are indeed the first steps in the journey, they are far from the end result when it comes to painting with sensitivity. A well-respected artist friend once shared a story with me concerning his realization that there is more involved than technical ability and beautiful subject matter in becoming a good artist. His father, a legendary artist himself, encouraged him to go off and study the craft of painting with the best painters of the generation. His father worried that their relationship might not survive if he attempted to tutor his son himself.
After a year away, working hard on his craft, my friend returned and prepared for his father’s critique. His father, a large foreboding man, quietly paced back and forth, studying the works. After what seemed like an eternity, he stopped and turned to his son. “Well, young man, you know how to do a painting,” he bellowed. “What are you going to do with that ability? The world doesn’t need another good painter of pretty scenes. It needs someone who says something with what he does. Your work begins anew from this day forward.”
This left my friend dumbfounded. He thought all he had to do was to learn how to paint.
“What did you do?” I asked him.
“Well,” he answered, “I turned inward and asked myself why I was drawn to certain subject matter and what I wanted to communicate to others about it.”
“And how did you do that?” I asked.
“By finding a scene that intrigued me and returning to it over and over again,” my friend answered. “The more familiar I became with the scene, the more depth of purpose I was able to put into the painting.”
Hearing this story had a profound effect on my own painting habits. Instead of always looking for the new, I began to return to what I came to refer to as an “old friend.” Gone was the feeling of guilt about placing my feet in the same spot, time after time, and painting. Instead of spending my time pursuing the possibility of something better lurking just over the horizon, it was replaced with an eagerness to reinvestigate. Time had passed. We were both different. But just like meeting up with an old friend after an absence, we picked up right where we had left off. I’m not saying that I don’t relish the chance to explore new vistas—the search for stimuli from the new has its purpose. But the intimacy formed with an “old friend” makes us the painters we hope to become.
Below are two examples—painted four years apart—from the more than 10 pastel paintings I’ve done from the same vantage point in Goleta, Calif. Limitless beauty abounds in the location, but my “old friend” never disappoints. Can’t wait to return!
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